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Avalon (2001)
Director: Mamoru Oshii

review by Christopher Geary

From the maker of excellent SF anime Ghost In The Shell (1996), this is Mamoru Oshii's first European live-action feature. Shot in Poland using colour and sepia stock, enhanced digitally, it's a visually impressive example of SF art cinema. The scenario concerns illegal VR wargame 'Avalon', and the unexpected destiny awaiting the courageous few that dare to play it.
   Ash (lovely Polish actress Malgorzata Foremniak) is a professional solo player at 'Class A' level. Since leaving a group of other regular players (collectively known as a 'party') whose team was called Wizard, she's become a loner; her only companion in the world is a basset hound that she dotes on. One day she meets Stunner (Bartek Swiderski), who was a scavenger and thief in Wizard, and he convinces Ash that she could access the 'Special A' level of Avalon, if she rejoins a war party, one led by the mysterious Bishop (Dariusz Biskupski) - a formidable virtual warrior and high-scorer. In time, Ash accepts the challenge, but discovers that Special A is also called "Class Real," and looks nothing at all like the familiar grungy levels of the Avalon universe. Can she avoid this new (virtual?) reality's potentially lethal 'reset' exit, and complete the game with a final assassination?
Ash in action inside Avalon
Though evidently inspired by philosophical elements of The Matrix (1999), with a puzzling ending cribbed from the ambiguous dénouement of Cronenberg's thought-provoking eXistenZ, Japanese production Avalon (aka: Gate To Avalon) is a superb example of visionary filmmaking from a master of intelligent genre movies. Oshii depicts a darkly lit, morally ambivalent, retro future where all personal and political identity and even freewill is at a premium. Avalon may appear deceptively simple on first viewing, with its achingly slow pace outside the story's VR realm of tanks, mega-helicopters and elite combat specialists. Yet the main plot, in which Ash moves up through levels of the game to confront her ultimate foe, is secondary to the accomplished sweep of the CGI imagery and pervasive themes of refined cyberpunk heroism and resonant Arthurian myth. Golden brown tints of the decrepit city streets, flickering with sparks from tramlines, and the interiors where only a few - usually inanimate - objects (computer screens in particular) are granted true colours are mesmerising. So it comes as a subtle shock (to Ash, and us viewers) when Oshii suddenly changes the film stock to eye-popping bright colour for the third act. Complemented by Kenji Kawai's glorious orchestral, operatic score (performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic and a huge choir), this is a fascinating and haunting movie.
   Created with wholly extravagant but unerring skill on both sides of the camera, and showcasing perfectly executed digital effects, Avalon is a dazzling and rewarding film experience that's strongly recommended to all SF fans. The Region 3 DVD release is in anamorphic widescreen (ratio 1.85:1) with Polish or Japanese sound options in Dolby digital stereo, 5.1 surround, or 6.1 DTS. There are subtitles in English, Japanese and Korean. At time of writing (April 2004) a Region 1 disc (NTSC, rated R, from Miramax) is also available. Hopefully, a Region 2 DVD release for this magnificent picture will not be long delayed.
Avalon Region 3 DVD

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Avalon Region 1 DVD

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